First year’s get their copy of A Beginner’s Guide to Transfiguration, by Emeric Switch, at Flourish and Blotts, before they ever enter Hogwarts to study magic. Hermione Granger is overheard in her enthusiasm, “I do hope they start right away, there’s so much to learn, I’m particularly interested in Transfiguration, you know, turning something into something else, of course, it’s supposed to be very difficult!” Always eager to excel, Hermione dreams of learning the art of changing something into something else. That does indeed sound like a pretty cool skill.
So, is that what happened to Jesus in today’s reading from Mark? Was Jesus turned into something else on that mountain?
What is transfiguration anyway? I have always been curious. I never use that word in normal conversation. What does it mean? When I looked up definition, this incident in the life of Jesus is often given to define the word, so that doesn’t help much. Then I came across the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry definition: turning something into something else. Fine for fiction, but is it what is going on here in this amazing moment on the mountain? If so, Jesus was turned from one thing into a different thing. Some have suggested that this was an adoption proclamation from God, but the same words were spoken at Jesus’ baptism many months earlier, so that seems far-fetched.
What is the sense of the Greek word used here? Maybe that will help us with a definition. The word in Mark is “metamorphothe,” the same word as metamorphosis in English. It can be translated as “transform” or “transfigure,” so the Greek doesn’t seem to help this time. Metamorphosis was a familiar concept from Ovid’s play, “Metamorphosis.” The play was completed about the same time Jesus was born. So, in the world around the earliest Christians this idea of metamorphosis was common. In it characters are changed, not only in form, but in substance, in essence. Narcissus really becomes a flower. Arachne really becomes a spider. Scylla really becomes a seabird. Niobe really becomes a rock. Metamorphosis didn’t just change what you looked like, but changed what you are.
So when this word was translated into Latin, the Christians were clear not to use a word that suggested one thing becoming another. Jesus was the same Jesus before and after this moment. The word transfigure was chosen to make it very clear that no magical spell was cast on Jesus that day; there was no change from one thing to another. Jesus was the same as always, he was just seen differently.
I found one definition which seemed to come closer to what may have happened on the mountain. Transfiguration is “a complete change of form or appearance into a more beautiful or spiritual state.” Used in a sentence it might go like this: “In this light the junk undergoes a transfiguration; it shines.” The junk didn’t actually change, but it’s perception changed. Transfiguration is a gift to the one who sees.
It is like the poem I shared a couple of weeks ago by Elizabeth Barrett Browning:
Earth’s crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God,
But only he who sees takes off his shoes;
The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries…
(Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Aurora Leigh (1857), Book VII, l. 812-826)
I think when JK Rowling was writing Harry Potter, she just thought “transfiguration” was a cooler word than “transformation.” More mysterious. But transformation is more what she had in mind. Fine in fiction.
On closer examination, I am not sure that much happened to Jesus on that mountain at all. He was in the practice of going away to a high place to pray. Usually he went by himself, but this time, he took three of his closest friends and learners. Remember when they asked Jesus to teach them to pray? The way the story of Jesus is put together, the Lord’s Prayer is the answer to that request. But I wonder if this was the second semester, or “Advanced Prayer.” I wonder if the disciples received a glimpse of what Jesus did during his regular mountain, or lonely place retreats. Perhaps this scene was just Jesus’ normal practice and the voice, light, glowing was the disciples’ seeing and hearing – finally.
It seems that transfiguration is more about appearance, about a new seeing, than about a change in essence. In fact, if you read this incident closely, it seems that this whole thing was for the benefit of Peter, James, and John. Jesus was transfigured “before them” and Moses and Elijah appeared to them. Moses and Elijah didn’t appear to Jesus, it was just that the disciples could see them talking to Jesus. Maybe Jesus talked with Moses and Elijah all the time! And somehow a veil was lifted in that moment and they saw Jesus like they had never seen him before. They saw the Jesus who was the same yesterday, today and forever. They saw Jesus as companions of Moses and Elijah, the greatest, most powerful and revered leaders in all of Hebrew history. Jesus was one of them.
Jesus was seen completely differently in their eyes, while the passage says nothing at all about Jesus being changed. We use the word “transfigured” instead of the word “transformed” to emphasize that this is still Jesus, and still identifiable as Jesus. As best we can tell, Peter, James, and John were not confused. They knew it was Jesus. He looked different, but he was clearly the same Jesus. He was “transfigured,” not “transformed.”
When they looked at their friend, they saw the glory of the Holy One. Their vision is described like every appearance of God in the Hebrew Scriptures – as indescribable light. I have heard friends in the church and outside it say wistfully that they wish that God would just reveal God clearly and incontrovertibly – something grandiose and exciting – just like the scribes and Pharisees of Jesus day demanded. But God does exactly that. The transfiguration is only one story of something that happens all the time, if we pay attention.
There is a part of our faith which is for the mystic. Yes, there are books, and scholars, and truths, and doctrines. And while those are good, they can be a little like building a booth for the presence of God. And God will be where God will be – which is everywhere and in everything. The mystics of the world have kept this truth alive. Mystic and magic may sound too much alike, but they are far from the same. Magic tries to control the unknown and mysterious. On the other hand, mystics take off their shoes, bow in recognition of what they see. They remind us that the living Christ is a reality who is not a historic footnote or a far off reality, but a presence as close as our breath. I know that in my years I have had moments when I knew the Holy Presence was there. I can’t describe it, take a picture, or build a booth to show you.
That was the disciples’ mistake in their transfiguration experience. They tried to keep it, hold it forever. But that isn’t how it works. Instead, we honor the encounter and continue our lives, hoping and looking for the next time…. And once it has happened to you, it is sure to happen again – because you are open, looking.
We begin Lent this week, with Ash Wednesday. In a sense, it is about preparing our hearts and eyes to see God-life invading our world. We call it resurrection. That is what the disciplines, the cleansing, the fasting of Lent is all about. We get rid of the scales in our eyes. We get rid of the things that distract us from God’s presence. We make a space, a silence in which God can speak: This is my beloved, Listen!
Peter, James, and John went up the mountain with Jesus, and saw him transfigured. When they came down the mountain, he was the same Jesus; but they had seen him, literally, in a new light. We are called to reflect the presence of Christ within us. And we’re called to do that, not by becoming someone or something we are not already, but by allowing the light of Christ that shines on us to reflect from us out into a dark and weary world. Through this Lent, and through every day of our lives in Christ, let us pursue our own transfiguration, and in time the world will see us, literally, in a new light: for the same light that showed the glory of Christ on the mountain will show the glory of Christ in our lives, and the promise of the glory of Christ for the whole world…. (Move to the Table)
Now we see before us another transfiguration. This bread and this cup are transfigured among us all the time. Jesus assured us that this would happen. In our tradition, it is not that the bread transforms, is chemically converted into the body of Jesus. Neither the juice. But when we open the eyes of our hearts around this table, when we let the scales fall from our eyes, the elements are transfigured before us. We can see that they are indeed the very essence of God, which becomes one with us in this moment.
1. Holy Breadcrumbs, blog of Brian Heron, Presbyter for Vision & Mission, Presbytery of the Cascades https://holybreadcrumbs.org/